Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Office Killer (1997)

I totally flipped out when I read that Cindy Sherman, my former profile image and one of my favorite artists, had directed a movie. And not like a regular "art film" movie, but a horror-comedy starring Carol Kane and Molly Ringwald! Is there anything this woman can't do awesomely? Probably not. Set in a failing magazine's headquarters, Office Killer examines the effects of new technology and shifting office dynamics through the perspective of quiet, dowdy proofreader Dorine (Carol Kane), who is downgraded to part-time and therefore forced to spend more time at home with her nagging, invalid mother. When working late one night due to computer trouble, Dorine witnesses her asshole editor Gary (David Thornton) die from electrocution when trying to fix some wires. She takes his body and sends an email under his name to Virginia (Barbara Sukowa), the magazine's head, saying he's gone away for a while.

Virginia teams her up with Kim (Molly Ringwald), who finds Dorine creepy and suspicious, to finish his big article. Working late to finish the piece, Dorine witnesses another death as Virginia has an asthma attack. This body comes home with her too, arranged in the basement with "working from home" accoutrements. She suddenly sees the advantages of murder, finding a wealth of posable new silent friends to fill her home office. Only Kim sees through Dorine's soft-spoken facade, but when she tries to warn Norah (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who's in charge of the computer changeover and reorganizational firings, she just alienates herself further and puts herself in danger of Dorine's unwanted attention.

This film is difficult to categorize, because it never veers fully into any one genre. It has aspects of comedy, but isn't exactly hilarious, and it's got lots of murder, but most of the deaths are off-screen. I guess it's mostly a thriller, with a tightly-paced story packed into a trim 85 minutes. It also works well as a parody of various slasher/thriller/horror films, viewing some of their tropes and stereotypes through a black comedy lens. Though it isn't always on target as a parody or comedy, Office Killer is nevertheless fascinating. Sherman uses her short time well, packing in a fast-moving plot, well-thought-out characters, and, of course, insightful and innovative art direction.

Knowing that a performance artist photographer was the director, I couldn't help but view Office Killer with an eye for how images were framed, angled, lit, and colored. There are a wealth of vibrant and interesting shots, from Ringwald's smoky and shadowy near-death experience to the dismal display of stony-faced corpses aglow with the television's blue haze. The gore and weirdness are all shown very frankly and without ceremony, adding to their eeriness. I also really loved the last shot, which seemed to pay tribute to Sherman's transformative self-portrait photography.

The cast is swell- it's great to see Carol Kane front and center, since for the most part I've only seen her in supporting roles (then again, I've barely cracked her fairly prolific filmography). She's delightfully creepy as Dorine, whipping out that impenetrable four-eyed stare like a pro. I enjoyed Molly Ringwald as well, since hey, for once she's not playing a troubled teenager (I'm joking, I know she's had tons of non-teenagery roles, but how many of them have you seen?). Here, she's rocking a cool hairstyle and take-charge manner. Jeanne Tripplehorn is a little choppy, but pulls it all together in the gripping climax.

Because it doesn't always deliver as a comedy or gory slasher film, Office Killer's parodical or referential aspects can sometimes drift into flat stereotypes. But the film is shot, paced, and acted so well that I didn't particularly care. It serves to prove that Cindy Sherman is not only an exceptional artist with an awesome boyfriend, but also a talented director. What a lady!


PS Can I say how great I think this connection is: Untitled Film Still #36 (1977) and Office Killer still. Rad, right? And I don't care if it's overly art-history-geeky to have thought of that instantly.